The battle with the invisible hand of advertising

As Silicon Valley continues to boom and new devices and apps pop up by the minute, it is becoming increasingly challenging to live in America and avoid mass media.  Whether it is at home watching NBC, buying toilet paper on Amazon, or on a mobile device watching YouTube videos of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, advertising seems to be inescapably all around us. And even as TV and print are beginning to die out, advertising will not; it will persist further into the digital sphere and wherever the tech world takes us. It is within this technological and digital boom that I began to think about how advertisers can take advantage of the ubiquity of media and the tremendous power they have in every facet of a consumer’s daily life.

Advertisers have the power to put images, words and stories into our minds, and with this power comes an immense responsibility. They have the responsibility to subvert a long history of producing images and words that perpetuate white beauty ideals, racism, objectification of  women in addition to many other extremely problematic misrepresentations. And we have seen a continued push to dismantle these representations with advertisements that confront social issues such as Pantene’s new “Sorry, Not Sorry” ad that reminds women they do not have to constantly apologize for taking up too much space or for asking questions, or Johnnie Walker’s “Keep Walking America” ad that reminded America, the day after the election of Donald Trump, of the strength cultural diversity brings to our country.

As a liberal arts college student, I have seen a widespread impulse to mock advertisements for their attempts to confront social issues as many argue (validly) that they only gloss over problems of social injustice rather than working to solve deep-rooted systemic inequalities.  This is what I have been grappling with: how can we demarcate whether these tactics that challenge us to think about feminism, diversity and inclusion in new ways are empowering or a manifestation of capitalism using “progressivism” as a way to drive sales and lure new consumers.  Furthermore, how can these ads seek to assure us of our morality and that “things are getting better” even when slave labor to create products is continuing to multiply overseas?

There are numerous ways in which the movement to include a diversity of bodies and cultures in advertising may seem useless as it does not seek to amend structural injustice, but I believe the power in advertising lies in its ability to normalize.  I believe that by displaying faces, beliefs, ideologies, and cultures, these stories become more familiar to us no longer appearing as “other”.

When I graduate, I am thinking of becoming a creative advertising strategist. I am going to be one of the people deciding who to include in ads, which social issues we want to address, and how to effectively do that with an understanding of the complexities of the issue at hand and how it affects people on a personal level every day.  I want to take charge and encourage corporations to tackle social issues and share people’s stories and cultures, but without acting as a cog in the capitalist order seeking to use “progressivism” as a way to bring in money that benefits corporations. What I really seek to answer is how can advertising effectively become part of the effort to make change rather than being mocked for its attempts to change perspectives within a capitalist and consumerist framework?